The world turned black and white.
That is how Sister Islands MLA Moses Kirkconnell describes the scene once the screaming winds and driving rains of Hurricane Paloma had passed Cayman Brac.
“There was just nothing green, it was as if everything was covered in dark dirt, an atmosphere of bleak circumstance hung over everything,” he says.
The eye of the Category 4 storm passed over Little Cayman at around 5am on Saturday 8 November, but sustained considerably less damage from the 140 mile an hour winds than its larger sister.
On the Brac, even two hurricane shelters couldn’t withstand the winds. The Quonset roof of the Veterans’ and Seaman’s Centre on the Bluff, thought to be hurricane-resistant, caved in. The police station also lost its roof. The Government dock was buried under a jumbled pile of boulders. Two hundred and fifty-two power poles toppled, wreaking destruction on the electricity distribution system.
A final tally revealed 95 per cent of the Brac’s 1,207 buildings were damaged: 56 were destroyed; 182 sustained major damage; 231 had medium damage; and 543 had minor damage. Only 195 escaped unscathed.
Tornadoes within the storm took steel beams 14 inches wide and twisted them like pretzels, Mr. Kirkconnell recalled.
As the Compass reported in the days following the hurricane, Mr Kirkconnel’s home had joined the ranks of many others on the island that lost their roofs. Fellow MLA Julianna O’Connor–Connoly rode out the storm in a bathtub with her niece, daughter, mother and sister after the upstairs portion of her house collapsed.
Mr. Kirkconnell says in the hours after the storm, the first priority was to assess the damage as quickly as possible. Then attention turned to meeting the essential needs food, water and shelter for the 1,300 or so people who had gone through the storm.
“Not only did people go through the trauma of losing all their worldly goods, some people were the second and third generations in their homes, so they lost their culture, their heritage and their tradition,” said Mr. Kirkconnell.
Getting back on track
District Commissioner Ernie Scott and Deputy District Commissioner Mark Tibbetts then took charge of the hands-on hurricane recovery.
From Saturday to Monday, channels were dug to drain the runway enabling a jet from Grand Cayman to land on Monday.
12 November, the airport was fully operational and several stores had also reopened, helping to restore at least some semblance of normality.
On November 13, two to three hundred people still remained in shelters. The rest had either made their way to Grand Cayman or were staying with family and friends. Others returned to their pummelled homes to begin the lengthy process of cleaning up and rebuilding.
The electricity was out all over the island, but luckily the water plant had an emergency generator, and Cayman Water trucks were distributing free water days after the storm
18 November a number of critical infrastructure facilities including Faith Hospital, the District Administration Building, the Water Authority Office and, by Monday morning, the airport had their electricity back on.
the end of November electricity had been restored to about 60 per cent of the island, but it was about four months before the electricity was restored to the majority of homes and businesses. Close to 500 generators loaned or donated from both the private sector and government were a big help, and those in financial need also received gas vouchers to run them.
An outpouring of help
Mr. Kirkconnell says businesses and public service clubs all helped out tremendously.
“It made you see what it is to be a Caymanian,” he said.
“There was such an outpouring of help; it was amazing to see all these small boats arriving from Grand Cayman full of people and supplies wanting to help.”
Numerous clean-up efforts by student groups and businesses helped tidy up the debris littering the roadsides and seashores across the island.
When it came to rebuilding, resources came in part from the Government’s Paloma Fund and the National Recovery Fund, which raised $800,000 from the private sector and government for approximately 38 projects, all of which are expected to be completed by the end of November.
Another effort, the Brac Relief Plan, came from an ad hoc meeting held by the Chamber of Commerce immediately after the storm. Developer Lindsay Scott, Atlantic Star, AL Thompson’s, the public, and private donors including Debbie Gushlak and Frank and Sharon Banks joined forces to raise over $32,000 to send over a 10-person work crew and supplies to the Brac.
The objective was to immediately repair the roofs of homes housing essential workers hit by the storm.
“These were the people working in the stores, the people doing maintenance, who were needed to keep the island running, who didn’t really have the means for insurance,” said Mr. Scott.
The construction team, housed in a trailer and furnished with minimal amenities – an outdoor shower, and a cook providing them with meals – arrived the second week after the storm and managed to repair 21 homes in three weeks.
The Cayman Islands Government eventually took over the funding, and they were soon joined by ten more workers.
“The original team is still there, nearly a year later,” said Mr. Scott.
“Still living in that trailer and still doing what they can to help the Brac rebuild.”
Nature got a helping hand
The Bluff forest was rendered almost completely leafless in places, destroying habitat and food for wildlife. However, an assessment revealed the sheltering understory was not badly damaged and most trees, though they lost their leaves, were not that badly damaged.
To tide wildlife over until the vegetation recovered, a feeding programme organized by Cayman Wildlife rescue and coordinated by the Department of Environment set up bird feeding stations stocked with donated fruit. Today, the animals and trees are showing good progress.
“We are much further ahead than we would have expected to be,” says Deputy District Commissioner Mark Tibbetts.
“The recovery effort has resulted in a newfound unity for the entire community. The community rallied behind each other, and I would say that the island is better off today than it was before the storm hit.”
He noted that while the recovery process was far from smooth, there were some positives that arose from the challenges.
Mr. Tibbetts says that the biggest challenge by far was reassuring everyone that their turn would come once the recovery projects had been prioritized.
“In this type of situation, everyone wants to be dealt with right away, and it led to a certain degree of frustration at first,” he said.
But he also noted that once people could see that their friends and neighbours were being helped, and that it was just not possible for everyone to be helped at once, there was a noticeable change.
“People were seeing the progress being made, which then instilled a degree of confidence,” he said.
Other hiccups included the newly-renovated high school being heavily vandalised and waste processing equipment at the dump being set on fire.
But over time, says Mr. Tibbetts, things are sorting themselves out.
A Chamber of Commerce election forum, a sea swim and a fishing tournament brought some welcome tourism business in mid-April, the first in months.
And in late June, the Brac Reef Resort accepted its first guests, while the Brac’s newest hotel the Alexander officially opened in early August.
And the disaster had some other knock-on benefits.
“Along with the construction boom we have had a number of entrepreneurs come online as a result of Paloma,” said Mr. Tibbetts.
“We have new construction and gardening companies who are doing well, and general merchants are also benefitting from the increase in sales volumes so the spur in business has been really positive for the island.”
He also noted that the island’s general infrastructure is better than it was in the days before Paloma,
Riding the wave
Mr. Kirkconnell noted that the global economic crisis has not hit the Brac yet, in part due to the mini economic boom.
“There was quite a lot of insurance money put into Cayman Brac’s major hotels and condos insured up to about $40 million for the major properties,” he said.
In addition, an outpouring of support has assisted others without insurance with their rebuilding efforts.
“But the rebuilding is going to come to an end, and the world economy will catch up to Cayman Brac early next year,” said Mr. Kirkconnell.
“We need to get the tourism industry back, and that includes getting direct jet flights from Miami.”
He noted that some infrastructure issues remain, as roads, the police station, and the hospital need more repairs. The hospital was hit in the midst of a major upgrade, which is now back on track.
“In Cayman Brac growing up all my life we heard about the ‘32 storm,” said Mr. Kirkconnell.
“What we have gone through here has been an experience that will forever be ours. We think of our lives as before Paloma and after Paloma,” he said.
“It has shown our resilience and taught us that we can depend on each other.”
Mr. Tibbetts agrees that the island has come together like never before.
“Although it has been a very challenging year, we can look back and say we have certainly accomplished so much. I’d like to express my thanks and appreciation to everyone.”